Chaos Theory: Re-Framing the Struggle of New Sales Managers

This post originally appeared here in the Selling Power blog.

When a top sales rep is promoted to sales manager, there is usually a honeymoon period during which the new manager’s enthusiasm keeps him or her afloat through the seemingly endless waves of new demands and pressures. But then…there is the onslaught of emails, reports for higher-ups, requests from marketing and HR, and the needs of individual reps. Many new managers get through their first months on adrenaline, caffeine, long hours at the office, and hope for a better future: Surely, things will get better once I’ve learned the ropes!

Here’s the problem: Without specific training on how to prioritize all the demands and establish a cadence for the job, things tend not to get better. That’s why, within just a few months, many new managers find themselves burnt out and looking longingly in the rearview mirror at their previous position. As sales reps, they were stars. They were in control. They knew how to do their jobs better than anyone else. Now they feel as though they are drowning, which leads many to question themselves: Maybe I’m not as good as I think I am.

Why is a successful transition from seller to sales manager so elusive for nearly every first-time manager? What results in so little room for what’s really important: coaching and developing reps? Why do so many managers’ great intentions – to grow their reps into a team of high performers – stay unrealized?

Unfortunately, organizations themselves are to blame. They exert pressure on the manager from every direction. Demands on sales managers come from the following areas.

Sales Leadership. At least two layers removed from the field, sales leaders are hungry for information about developments on the ground. They have no direct control over rep activities so they seek to feel like they have control by demanding more and more information from managers about what they and their sellers are doing. Responding to requests for information from the boss – and the boss’s boss – can consume as much as 25 percent of a manager’s week.

Human Resources. While HR is responsible for ensuring the right people are hired, much of the burden of assessment and development falls to the sales manager. HR wants managers to develop competencies for hiring reps, interview potential hires, onboard and develop them, document performance, and much more. These are important tasks but they often are pushed aside in favor of more urgent demands.

Marketing. When marketers run campaigns or launch new products, they need information. And they need it from sales managers. Or they need it from the CRM system, but they usually don’t trust the CRM data and want it scrubbed – by the sales manager. Requests from marketing can consume many hours of a sales manager’s week.

Sales Operations. While this group ensures the sales force has whatever it needs to succeed, it also puts its own set of demands on the frontline manager. Tools and systems deployed for rep productivity are costly and frontline managers are constantly judged on their usage – and urged to improve results.

Sales Team. By the time a manager has completed informational and administrative tasks and also dealt with direct customer interactions, there is very little time left for reps. And what time there is available for the team is usually consumed putting out fires. Reps need help with pricing, proposals, resolution of customer issues, and other reactive issues. Coaching and individual rep development – which should be the manager’s first priority – are pushed aside. They become an elusive ideal.

With all these organizational demands, it’s no wonder sales managers are so overburdened and burn out so quickly. Since the demands aren’t going away, how can managers create an effective working cadence amid all the pressure and chaos?

The answer lies in Chaos Theory, which deals with complex systems whose behavior is highly sensitive to slight changes in conditions. Small alterations can give rise to significant consequences. Recognizing the chaotic, fractal nature of our world can give us new insight. An understanding of the interconnection between systems can help us avoid actions that may end up being detrimental to long-term goals. This is good news for sales managers trying to survive in a chaotic environment. By making a few small changes to their current conditions, they can produce wildly improved results down the road.

What small changes should managers be making? We’ll examine these in part 2.